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How do I form the conditional tense in German, and how do I construct an ‘if’ clause?

Conditional sentences indicate degrees of possibility, or the extent to which an event or action is likely to happen.  In English, this tense is used for talking about what you would do, if it were possible, for example: ‘If I were rich, I would buy a fast car.’ The action of buying a car depends on becoming rich – this is a conditional sentence.

The conditional is a compound tense in German. To form it, we always need the following three components, no matter which verb we use:

1. the subject pronoun: every sentence needs a subject. These are: (ich (I), du (you), er/sie/es/man (he/she/it/one), wir (we), ihr (you plural), Sie (you formal), sie (they):

Ich

 

2. the right form of würden, depending on which subject pronoun you use. Würden is the conditional form of the auxiliary verb ‘werden’ - we also use ‘werden’ when constructing other compound tenses such as the future tense.

würde

 

(Other forms of werden in the conditional are:

ich/er/sie/es/man würde

du würdest

wir/sie/Sie würden

ihr würdet)

 

3. an infinitive (verb in its full form) to go at the end of the sentence:

 

gehen

 

= Ich würde gehen/I would go

 

What is an ‘if’ clause? How do I use one?

To make your conditional sentences longer, you can use ‘wenn’ (if) to create an “if clause”.

If I had time, I would go there.

When we use ‘wenn’, the form of ‘würden’ must go at the end of the clause, after the infinitive (in this case ‘haben’). In the second clause, we have to invert the subject and verb – this means that they swap places. The infinitive gehen remains at the end:

Wenn ich Zeit hätte (haben würde), würde ich dort gehen.

(We can change ‘haben würde’ to ‘hätte’ – this is a shortened conditional form of ‘haben’ and is more common)

 

A literal translation of this sentence in German is:

If I would have time, I would go there.

 

…but in English this doesn’t make much sense. The following translation would sound much more natural:

If I had time, I would go there.

 

In German, both parts of this sentence need to be in the conditional tense – using würden in both clauses.

Although a lot of ‘if’ clauses use the conditional tense, you can also use the present tense to indicate possibility. The present tense can be used in the first clause, followed by the future tense in the second clause:

 

If I have time, I will go shopping.

Wenn ich Geld habe, werde ich einkaufen gehen.

 

Again, wenn sends the verb ‘habe’ to the end of the clause.

In the second part of the sentence, inversion happens - the subject (ich) and the verb (werde) swap places, leaving us with werde ich… gehen. The infinitive stays at the end of the clause.

Many conjunctions do not change the word order in German (such as denn and aber), but wenn, along with other common conjunctions like dass, is a subordinating conjunction that does alter word order.

 

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